Exploring the Deep Ancestry of Bornean Hunter-Gatherers

A new study published in Cell Reports (https://www.cell.com/cell-reports/fulltext/S2211-1247(23)01358-X) sheds light on the deep ancestry of Bornean hunter-gatherers, challenging the prevailing notion that these communities underwent recent subsistence reversion from the neighboring Indigenous agriculturalists. The study, led by Pradiptajati Kusuma, PhD (a postdoctoral researcher at MRIN) with collaborating with researchers at the University of Cambridge and Santa Fe Institute, provides evidence supporting the long-term habitation of Punan-related people on the island, and highlights the unique genetic ancestry connections among these communities in Northeast Borneo.

After a thorough community engagement processes, the researchers collected DNA samples from individuals belonging to Punan-related communities (PunanBatu, PunanTubu, and PunanAput) and an indigenous agriculturalists (the Lundayeh) in Northeast Borneo, and analyzed their genetic data using the Illumina Omni 2.5 array, which allowed them to genotype 2.4 million variants across the genome. They also built a comparative dataset from 50 worldwide populations comprising an additional 641 individuals.

The results of the study revealed that the Punan-related communities in Northeast Borneo have a distinct genetic ancestry that is different from other Bornean populations, as well as from other Southeast Asian and Oceanian populations. The split of the Punan from the "Austronesian"-related cluster was at least beyond 7,000 years ago.

These findings challenge the prevailing notion that the Punan-related communities in Northeast Borneo are agriculturalists who underwent recent subsistence reversion. Instead, the study suggests that these communities have a long history of hunting and gathering, and that they have maintained their traditional way of life despite the pressures of modernization and development.